A Princess for Christmas - Jenny Holiday

Chapter One

Talking to kids was easier in cars. Leo might be making a hash of everything with Gabby, but that was one thing he’d learned in the two years he’d been trying to pinch-hit on the whole parenting thing.

Talking to kids was easier in cars. Not easy. Easier. Usually only marginally to imperceptibly. Like today when, despite his best efforts, he could not extract any information about how the middle school production of The Wizard of Oz had gone.

“Did Aidan remember his line today?” At yesterday’s show, number four of the weeklong run, the boy playing the head of the Lollipop Guild had forgotten his line—the line that came before Gabby’s—so the whole production had ground to a halt, Gabby unsure whether she should wait for him. The result, she reported, had been “extreme and utter mortification” when the teacher cued her to go ahead, thus making it look like the flub had been her fault.

Or so he’d been told yesterday, when Gabby had been infinitely more chatty than today.

Today, getting her to speak was like trying to arrange an audience with the great and powerful Oz.

She didn’t answer, just performed a kind of girlish grunt as she looked out the window in the back of his taxi.

Did Aidan remember his line or not? he wanted to shout. But a person didn’t shout things like that at his eleven-year-old sister. Especially when Did Aidan remember his line or not? was really a proxy for Please tell me you’re okay.

Also: Where is your winter hat? It might not be snowing yet, but it’s December, and I don’t care about your hair. I care about your ears not getting frostbitten.

But Leo didn’t know how to say any of those things. One day Gabby was all smiles and stories and “extreme and utter mortification,” and the next she was closed up as tightly as the clams Dani brought back from Long Island.

He didn’t know if the way she ran so hot and cold was normal. The parenting books he read suggested it was, but he thought it was early for her to be like this—he’d been expecting this moodiness to arrive later, to be more of a teenage thing.

But on the other hand, she had always been socially advanced. And she was a lot smarter than he was. He had never used phrases like extreme and utter mortification when he was eleven. Or in the fourteen years since, for that matter.

“What does that mean?” he said in response to her grunt. “Did the Lollipop League boss come through? I’m on pins and needles, here, kiddo.”

“It’s the Lollipop Guild, Leo.”

And, oh, the disdain she managed to infuse into that single word. His heart sped up like it always did when he felt like he was on the brink of fucking things up irrevocably.

Who knew he was capable of getting so worked up over The Wizard of Oz?

But hang on, now. This was important, yes, because it was important to her, but confusing the Lollipop Guild and the Lollipop League wasn’t fucking things up irrevocably. He needed to keep some perspective here.

No. What he needed was a vacation. But that wasn’t happening anytime soon.

So he cleared his throat as he turned onto First Avenue. “Right. Lollipop Guild; Lullaby League. Got it.”

There was a long silence as he navigated the snarl of traffic on the few blocks between them and their destination. But then Gabby said, “You’re for sure coming tomorrow, right?”

There. That’s what these rides were about. She never would have asked him that so directly at home. But he could hear in her tone how much she wanted him there. And how much she’d missed the fact that he hadn’t been yet.

“You can count on it.” He still felt terrible about missing today’s show. He’d told her he would be there, but Mrs. Octavio in 2C had run a bath and forgotten about it, causing it to overflow into the unit below hers.

He should have been there like he promised. He should have been on hand to witness the “extreme and utter mortification.” That he hadn’t was edging closer to “fucking up irrevocably” territory. Leo worried sometimes that all his small mistakes, his oversights and omissions, while not large enough individually to do any real harm, were invisibly accreting. That they were somewhere inside Gabby, dormant for now, but that one day, when he committed one too many, there would be a kind of tipping point. That all his little fuckups would add up to